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Animated Edition - Winter 2007
Three perspectives on FLAG 2006
Frank Bock, Lea Anderson and Jackie Mortimer reflect on the impact that the Flag Project 2006 had on Brockhill Park Performing Arts College, its pupils and the dancers from the Featherstonehaughs and the Cholmondeleys
Frank Bock, founder member of The Featherstonehaughs, runs the education programme for The Cholmondeleys was the project co-ordinator for Flag 2006

This project came from an idea of seeing Flag (1988), the first joint show of The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs, recreated on young people. Having danced in the original piece I was keen to see it 18 years later, around the same time Anna Cutler from Creative Partnerships expressed the idea of seeing a project of 'mini chums and fans'.

Flag 2006 was funded by Creative Partnerships as well as the two participating schools. The budget was around £100,000 which allowed us to direct every part of the company towards the project; artistic and design elements, as well as management and marketing.

The project involved 16 dancers and nine musicians aged between 12 and 18. A female company of eight, The Colquhouns (Cahoons) and a male company of eight, The Marjoribanks (Marchbanks) were selected by teachers at Brockhill Park Performing Arts College and were accompanied by nine musicians from Pent Valley Technology College. We planned no more than to set up two companies and a band in order to recreate a piece of work. The task seemed huge; my concern was that the pressure to deliver such detailed work could become arduous on top of their other schoolwork which they had undertaken to keep up to date.

The aim was to reconstruct an existing work on non-professionals with the resources to mirror, as much as possible, the way in which we would create a main company show. It raises the question of what responsibilities we have towards those participating in terms of the expectations we raised. Setting out with the highest of aspirations is something every project leader, artistic director or teacher would agree upon in any circumstance whether a project fits cultural trends or not.

The mixture of ages of the dancers presented particular challenges: the length of day (usually seven or eight hours) potentially could have been difficult for some of the younger members of the companies. Their dance experience was very mixed, but ranged from 'A' Level and GCSE to little or no previous experience. The majority however were part of the schools youth dance company Instep, so an ethos of working in and valuing dance was already in place.

We had ten weeks of reconstruction time, the same we would have for a main company production, but spread over ten months. It was feasible that one or two Cholmondeleys or Featherstonehaughs could have re-taught the choreography alongside Lea. However, it seemed important that at least three Featherstonehaughs and three Cholmondeleys (including Lea Anderson) were part of their regular contact. From the outset we were clear that we went in as a group for the reason that we wanted them to meet as many of us as possible and for them to see how we work together. Something about sharing our culture. From this basis we began to establish a sense of continuity - Lea's constant presence highlighted the fact this actually was not an outside project, whereas on education projects the delivery would be carried out by our dancers. The Colquhouns and Marjoribanks began to feel very much part of our company structure, albeit as a satellite. We would constantly discuss what input an individual might need whether that related to time or specific direction.

What began to develop during the project was a strong sense of trust through the developing relationships between them and across companies. I sensed a kind of democracy emerging between us (Cholmondeleys, Colquhouns, Featherstonehaughs and Marjoribanks) as we would try and solve problems while at the same time having to deliver an enormous amount of steps. Sometimes I was concerned that it felt like making 'fois gras', force-feeding them so much material. They scarcely complained and understood what was at stake. In the past The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs have had dancers of different levels of formal training including untrained or 'grockles' as we would call them. So historically, enjoying the way in which different kinds of performers could bring themselves to the movement has been part of what we do.

The way the dancers engaged with the material (rehearsing on their own, quietly telling you what internal narrative they had found to carry out a movement) and acquired such ownership produced a strange physical sensation in me, a mixture of sadness and wonder, something about taking me back to my past combined with awe at their seriousness and care.

It would be wrong to imagine that the quality of their engagement was achieved by simply bringing our social world and artistic material to them. The holistic underpinning that characterizes the teachers' approach at Brockhill set the ground for young dancers to trust what was on offer. Perhaps I should not be so surprised at the way The Colquhouns and The Marjoribanks entered into the process since we had aimed to create companies in the same model as The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs, an experience I know very well: full of work that feels like play, large and small vocabularies which take on a density and weight through the need to invest of yourself. Personal responsibility that earns immediate recognition from the choreographer. One dancer 'disappeared' from several rehearsals and threatened to discontinue. Lea was able to bring him back in, calling upon his sense of loyalty to the group while acknowledging his difficulties.

When the Flag 2006 came to be performed (The Place Theatre, Margate Theatre Royal and Brockhill Park School) the integrity of their work was irrefutable, although one critic did spitefully say that none of them 'should give up the day job'. Is that what we were encouraging them to do?

The project now over, my job is to now think of ways in which we can maintain our links with the dancers. There is something difficult about saying 'you are part of us' but now the money is spent 'it's over', particularly when a project was so centrally based on relationship. Coming to see the main company work, offering placements and residencies are all possibilities. Having in the main met the production values we set out to achieve, they understood they were part of a unique experience. One 15 year old dancer who was very upset she was not in the cast for a certain part one night came back some days later with the response 'it was important for me to learn about disappointment'. I think that example revealed a maturity of understanding which is necessary when setting out to achieve something that both succeeded and failed. They are not professionals but produced something extraordinary and of great quality.

Lea Anderson - Choreographer/Artistic Director

This reconstruction of Flag was not originally conceived of as an education project, but as a professional reconstruction by extremely young performers. I was intrigued to discover what effect extreme youth would have on the audience's perception of the choreography.

Flag consists of many diverse sections touching various subjects: orating, politicians presenting propaganda to the masses, athletes competing under the banner of their nation, groups wearing Mao suits reading from red books & trying to put these ideas into practice, Futurists imagining a new industrial age and revolutionary rabbles inciting street riots. A very young company would add something to all these scenarios.

We (The Cholmondeleys/ Featherstonehaughs) had never undertaken any project of this nature before so I had absolutely no preconceived ideas of who these young performers might be and where they might come from.

Imagery has always played a very large part in the creation of Cholmondeleys' and Featherstonehaughs' choreography, both literally collecting pictures from many sources to look at & discuss in the studio, as well as verbal instruction imagery, for example imagine you are throwing a missile and ducking immediately to avoid aftermath and repercussion. For this project we decided on an extra full-on image-led approach to the movement, always referring to the original image, especially when putting a complicated task to very specific counts for unison work.

The response from the Colquhouns/Marjoribanks was extremely positive. We had much discussion in the studio about the dynamics suggested by an image, its meaning and interpretations. No dance step names were given. Sometimes, dancers with the most experience of dance had some problems when they couldn't reconcile this way of working with their knowledge of dance steps. This tended to improve in some cases in the course of the year.

The movement material in Flag is very precise and counted to an extreme degree. By that, I mean extreme from the point of view of an adult professional dancer. We made no compromise for the age and experience of our dancers as I wasn't convinced that it was at all necessary. We told the dancers that they were individually responsible on a practical level for their own journey through the show. There was to be no 'cross-over' from one wing to the other in this production, so dancers had to keep track of which side of the stage they exited so that they could tell me from where they were entering in the next section. I would then incorporate this information into the work. No two dancers shared the same model. The dancers had the responsibility to decide, based on their notes, which side of the stage to change costume & where to place and leave props. None of the group leaders checked the dancers' decisions. The dancers discovered any miscalculations during runs and accordingly fixed them. As our deadline grew closer, it became clear that some of these practical problems could not be fixed by me or other group leaders. We simply were simply were running out of time. The dancers had to suggest solutions to me, which we adopted and moved on. These dancers became highly focused & very committed to the work. They behaved in the same way as very special professional dancers (not all professional dancers are highly focused and very committed). The only difference that was apparent to me was their inability on the most part to demonstrate in rehearsals a full-out performance. They couldn't show me exactly how they were going to behave in a real performance situation. I imagine this was because they didn't know. They couldn't know. They had no experience to draw from. When they did finally show me in a real performance on a real stage. It was truly an amazing and marvelous thing. A wonderful and moving experience.

Jackie Mortimer - Vice Principal, Brockhill Park Performing Arts College

As the teachers planned and approached the project we focused on specific aims, largely around the development of the whole person rather than the product of the performance, although I suspect the students would have been almost entirely concerned with the final performances! The Cholmondeleys and Lea Anderson were a particular draw for us. I felt confident that their approach would 'marry' with our own. And I was right!

I had the feeling that this project could make a difference to its participants. In large part this was the case - although time and distance has given me time to reflect on the positive and the negative. The positives were numerous. For the staff - an opportunity to watch the students on a journey. It was a privilege to observe their progress as dancers and young adults. I felt sure, as I watched that they were on the right path. Every session there were more opportunities to test their understanding of who they were and what they were going to become. Lessons such as commitment, selflessness, focus, loyalty, team work, problem solving were observable at every stage. Leaders emerged - not always from the most likely places and tolerance and understanding blossomed. In between, the dance was wonderful! I was torn between being proud of them as dancers and being proud of them as young adults. They were clearly becoming ambassadors for dance, for school and for youth. For my own part I felt tearful, incredibly proud, maternal, and happy at every turn. As any teacher will tell you, it's moments like these that give you perspective. In my case at the wrong (or right?) end of a long and happy teaching career a project like this gives you the objectivity to recognise that it's all worthwhile.

The hardest part for us as their teachers was in the startling moment of loss (which I remember clearly). They began the project as a disparate group of students from all age groups, who looked to their teachers for their inspiration and knowledge, and as we progressed through the year they became Lea Anderson's dance companies. I have thought a lot about this and recognise the feeling. It's like completing a piece of choreography and handing it to the dancers who embody the work. So I felt this would be the same. A sense of loss followed by a triumphant sense of pride!

The relationship between artist and teacher has to be built on trust and shared aims. In our case there was a unique understanding of what we were doing both in the dance work and beyond.

At Brockhill we recognise the value of projects such as this - and are prepared to take the risk of disrupting usual learning regimes for a more personalised programme which focuses on individual growth. This is a brave way to go and it needs vision and confidence from the top of the school and support from families and lead-teachers. From the start we had all parties working together. This was hugely important in the day to day running of the project.

Was it all good? Well in July I would have said yes but since returning to normality I have had occasion, since the performances, to consider - what of those students who had invested so much in school dance and not been selected? And also what of the participants whose lives were filled with the project, and then whose lives suddenly emptied? I have examples of both. In the first instance, a single student was able to verbalise some months after the project finished, that she was devastated not to have been selected. It has taken four months to pick her up. She is now back dancing and enjoying herself again.

And of the second instance two students who completed the project as stars - but after it was over their dance lives ceased. These two were different from the others in that they did not belong to the schools' dance companies. Those who did belong returned to a new dance focus and a continued sense of community. The other two seemed adrift and have struggled, in their own ways, to enjoy dance since losing their 'Cholmondeley family'.

And so, some five months on, as I reflect I consider the project a total success - I am even sure that those who have struggled will find that the struggle is part of their individual journey. The project, although over, continues in the lives of these young people. Through easy and difficult times they seem able to cope. It is as if they have returned as adults. When you have any of these young students in the room with you, it's like having another adult in the room. They are interested, energised, and joyful. They talk about how they feel and of their aspiration. Back in school they bring this sense of pride and hard work to their every day lives and into their classrooms. This will be the long-term legacy. This kind of motivation is contagious and others with whom they share time and space may also pick up on this positivity. There is the potential for social change when one person's aspiration fuels others. It's early days but who knows?

Frank Bock, is Education Officer for the Cholmondeleys, Lea Anderson, is Artistic Director of the Featherstonehaughs and the Cholmondeleys and both can be contacted on
Jackie Mortimer is Vice Principal, at Brockhill Park Performing Arts College in Kent and can be contacted on 01303 265521.
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Animated: Winter 2007